Petzoldt, Joseph (1862–1929)

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Joseph Petzoldt, a German empiriocritical philosopher, was born at Altenburg and taught mathematics and natural science at a Gymnasium in Spandau. In 1904 he became Privatdozent at the Technische Hochschule in Berlin-Charlottenburg, and in 1922 he was named associate professor. For a number of years he was chairman of the Gesellschaft für positivistische Philosophie.

Petzoldt was indebted to Ernst Mach's positivism, to the immanence philosophy of Wilhelm Schuppe, and above all to the empiriocriticism of Richard Avenarius. Petzoldt presented Avenarius's difficult philosophy in a popular form and developed it independently. For example, he offered a psychological explanation of the "narrowness," and therewith the unity, of consciousness; he tried to demonstrate the unlimited validity of psychophysical parallelism; and he analyzed ethical and aesthetic values and proposed a theory of the ethical and aesthetic permanence, or maximum stability, of humankind. According to this theory, all evolutionary processes end in states of permanence. Hence, human evolution is also heading toward a state of complete stability and toward the marking out of defining forms of permanence, that is, of invariably repeatable, fixed components of mental acts. The most basic feature of all the goals of our thought and creative work is permanence or durabilitythe realization of ever recurrent, repeatedly used ways of acting and the establishment of enduring forms amidst the profusion of particular configurations. An example of this is the tendency of thought toward stability, the striving for a stable conceptual system.

Petzoldt called his philosophy a "relativistic positivism." According to this view, both causality and substantiality are untenable and unnecessary categories, and the difference between the mental and the physical reduces to a difference in the "mode of interpretation." Petzoldt, like Avenarius, held that the concept of cause should be replaced by the mathematical concept to functional dependence, or uniqueness of coordination. According to Petzoldt, the causal relation is fully exhausted in a "law of uniqueness," which holds that for every process, the elements that exclusively determine it should be specified. Because there is thus nothing in the real world corresponding to the "animistic" concept of cause, this concept should be eliminated. The demand for a causal explanation that goes beyond the complete and simplest description of processes rests on misunderstandings; such an explanation is in principle unrealizable and is therefore meaningless.

The concept of substance, according to Petzoldt, originates from a need for stability in thinking. There are no absolute substances but only relatively constant complexes of sensory qualities. Since all properties hold good only relative to a subject, the idea of an absolute, nonrelative being should be discarded, and with it the category of substance. There is no "world-in-itself"; there is only a "world-for-us," whose elements are sensations, even though "things" are to be thought of as "continuing to exist" even when we do not perceive them. The world-for-us is apprehended as being mental insofar as it is perceived and as being physical insofar as it is known as a correlation of elements. That which is ultimately "given" is thus neither mental nor physical, neither immaterial nor material, neither "internal" nor "external," neither thing-in-itself nor phenomenon. These antitheses are merely relatively valid limiting concepts, intelligible only in their interrelation: they are formed only subsequent to, and on the basis of, the primordial unitary experience. Petzoldt's conception resembled Bertrand Russell's neutral monism.

Petzoldt's philosophy culminated in an evolutionary naturalism. "Man is not a permanence type, but an organism in a state of very active development; yet, like all other organisms and like self-developing systems generally, he is headed toward a form of permanence" (Einführung in die Philosophie der reinen Erfahrung [Introduction to the philosophy of pure experience], Vol. 2, p. 3). Just as organic evolution tends toward the production of permanence states and "man's brain approaches more and more a form of permanence," the spiritual and intellectual evolution of man likewise tends to permanence states. We strive for the completion of science, for the perfection of social institutions and customs by a progressive adjustment of national and social differences, and for the fulfillment of art through "emphasis on the typical and essential in the phenomena."

The goal of ethics is that in all that we do and think we help to realize the future permanence state that flows from the nature of man and his environment (p. 206). This is the state of maximum utilization of powers, and hence of maximum stability, toward which all evolution strives. Each of us must risk everything "in order to perfect his personality in accordance with the nature and extent of his abilities and to place himself entirely at the service of human society" (p. 212).

See also Avenarius, Richard; Ethics, History of; Evolutionary Theory; Mach, Ernst; Positivism; Schuppe, Ernst Julius Wilhelm.


Works by Petzoldt include Maxima, Minima und Oekonomie (Altenburg, 1891); Einführung in die Philosophic der reinen Erfahrung, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 19001904); Das Weltproblem vom Standpunkte des relativistischen Positivismus aus historisch-kritisch dargestellt (Leipzig, 1906); Die Stellung der Relativitütstheorie in der geistigen Entwicklung der Menschheit (Dresden, 1921); and Das natürliche Höhenziel der menschheitlichen Entwicklung (Leipzig, 1927).

An article on Petzoldt is by Christian Herrmann, "Nachruf: Joseph Petzoldt," in Kant-Studien 34 (1929): 508510.

Franz Austeda (1967)

Translated by Albert E. Blumberg